Turning virtual reality into commercial reality

Photographer Luke Woods is a man on a mission. He’s working hard to persuade Dorset businesses to embrace virtual reality video and 360-degree images, as a way of standing out from the crowd.

Virtual reality is set to be the big content trend for 2017, according to a blog post on influential digital marketing website Econsultancy. But before I go any further, it’s probably useful to explain the differences between the various forms of photo and video that go beyond the traditional two dimensions.

A short guide to VR, 360-degree video, 3D and AR

Virtual reality - True VR is a highly immersive experience presented through a headset connected to a motion sensor and computer. The wearer is free to move through a virtual environment in any direction they choose. A virtual world can be an alternate reality, such as seen in computer games such as Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, or a virtual version of our own world. 

360-degree video - Much of what we think of as VR is actually 360-degree video. It can also be presented through a headset with a motion sensor, but the wearer’s point of view is restricted to the camera’s position. If you’re watching 360-degree video through a headset, you can move your head to look in any direction you choose, but in, say, a street scene, you can’t decide to walk down the street.

For the last two years Luke Woods has been one of the those working with Google to improve the 360-degree experience. 

Take a quick look at this 360-degree video of Framptons in Bridport, by Luke Woods. You can view it on a flat screen device - you don’t need a headset. Once it starts playing, use your fingertip (on touch sensitive screens) or mouse to change your point of view.



On some smartphones, you can select the cardboard icon, then put your smartphone in a VR viewer, and you'll have more of a virtual reality experience.


3D video - Just a few years ago, 3D was the next ‘big thing’ in home entertainment, with many TV sets offering the technology. But it didn’t take off, in part because people didn’t want the hassle of needing to wear 3D glasses whenever they watched.

Augmented reality - AR overlays our view of the world with computer generated information or images. Pokemon Go was AR’s big moment in 2016, adding a wealth of imaginary creatures to our homes and streets.

None of these technologies is actually new. I was exploring computer generated virtual worlds decades ago on a Commodore Amiga computer. Back then there were no motion-sensing headsets. All these can be viewed on a flat screen, although true VR, where you feel like you’re really there, does need a headset.

What is new is that it’s becoming easier to capture content on 360-degree video, and it’s increasingly being used in marketing and education.

Practical uses of 360-degree photos and video

Let’s say you want to book a short break for a special weekend away in a hotel. You find a place which, from its website, looks good. You look it up on TripAdvisor to see what other visitors have to say about it. But you want to go a step further and get a feel for what the rooms and facilities will be like. After all, photos are useful, but a skilful photographer will find the best angles and exclude what they don’t want you to see.

By offering a 360-degree image experience on their website, the hotel makes it much easier for you to experience what they have to offer. In this case study video from Luke Woods, a B&B owner explains how 360-degree images helped his business grow.

A good wedding photographer captures the magic of the big day and video enhances this. Using 360-degree video, you can make the memory even more immersive, and Luke provides an example of this, taken at Minterne House in the heart of Dorset.

Google Street View has been giving us 360-degree images of our nation for about ten years. You can now leave the street and go inside selected buildings and businesses. As a Google accredited photographer, Luke provides businesses with internal 360-degree images that are available from Street View.

Dorset estate agents Domvs now offer virtual reality property tours. When viewed along with drone overviews of a house, it’s now much easier to get a feel for your potential new home without having to visit in person.

It’s possible to stream 360-degree video live. In mid-2016, we saw the first livestream of a surgical procedure in 360-degrees, which could be hugely useful for medical students.

The power of 360-degree video is the sense of ‘being there’, particularly if it’s presented via a headset. It can be a powerful educational tool, and not just in schools. I’ve heard of one insurance company experimenting with putting their staff at the centre of a virtual home disaster, to make it easier for them to relate to customers who’ve just experienced the trauma for real.

Can 360-degree images help your business?

For some businesses, offering 360-degree photos or video can help them stand out from the crowd, because their competitors aren’t doing it. There’s a novelty factor to presenting yourself this way right now, simply because it’s new and unusual.

The commercial benefits of 360-degrees seem obvious for estate agents and those selling holiday home space, or a hire venue. If video is a great way to sell experiences, such as coasteering or boat rides, would a 360-degree video make it more immersive and more appealing?

What about the more mundane businesses, such as hairdressers and accountants? Can they take advantage of 360-degree images? Where the quality of your premises can make a difference to a customer’s experience, 350-degree can gives you a new way to showcase it.

We’re all more comfortable going inside business premises that we’re familiar with. By giving people an introduction to your workplace, through 360-degree images, you can help build that familiarity before they visit it person.

Because it’s still relatively unusual, 360-degree images don’t need to be very sophisticated to stand out. When they become more common, businesses will need to pay more attention to the content of the image or video, such as introducing storytelling. And doing that in 360-degrees is very different from the traditional single point of view presentation we see every day.

Learn more about VR and 360-degree images

This has been a quick overview of virtual reality and 360-degree imagery. If you want to know more, here are some suggestions of where to go next:

Get in touch with Luke Woods via his website, or look him up on Twitter or Facebook. Luke is a specialist in this area – one of a small number of photographers sought out by Google to help take their 360-degree project forward. Luke provides businesses with 360-degree images, allowing people using Street View to enter and explore their business premises.

Take a look at Google Cardboard. You can build or buy a VR headset made literally from cardboard, which uses a smartphone as a viewing screen. Simple but very effective!

Explore some fabulous 360-degree images on Flickr VR. But remember, despite the name, they are not true virtual reality, because you're not free to roam around to change your point of view.

Read How to use 360-degree video in your social media marketing, from Social Media Examiner. This article is now 18 months old but is still very fresh. 

Andrew Knowles
Should I hashtag the name of my business?

The subject of hashtags comes up on every Twitter training course that I run. No surprise there, as the hashtag was invented and popularised by Twitter. And no surprise that despite being used almost everywhere, hashtags are still something of a mystery to many.

Hence the common question on my training courses: should I hashtag my business name? People are taken aback when my answer is ‘probably not’. There are much more effective ways of using hashtags. And if your business is small, as the vast majority are, using the name as a hashtag is pointless.

hashtagging your name won’t achieve anything

Let’s say that I start using my business name in tweets. I might tweet: “I’m preparing an article about using business names as hashtags #dorsetsocial”

The tweet already includes my business name, so what’s the point of repeating it as a hashtag? One answer might be that by using a hashtag I’m creating a theme that other people might be interested in.

After all, the real power of the hashtag is its ability to connect people around a single subject or idea. I’m writing this in mid-February, so a big theme on Twitter right now is #valentinesday.

Can I unlock some of this hashtag power around my business name? No, you can’t. The thing is, lots of people are interested in #valentinesday, which is why there are loads of tweets with that hashtag. And Instagram pics - the photo-sharing app is the other place where hashtags have become incredibly popular and useful.

The power of the hashtag is that when someone sees a tweet with #valentinesday, they may click or tap it to see what other people are sharing on the same theme.

But who’s going to follow the #dorsetsocial hashtag? Or the hashtag of your business name? Probably no one other than you (or me). And depending on the name of your business, the hashtag of its name may already be used in ways that are entirely unrelated to what you do. After all, no one ‘owns’ a hashtag.

connect with the power of the hashtag

So if using your business name as a hashtag is a non-starter, how can you make the hashtag work for you?

Let’s stick with the #valentinesday example. If you’re a florist, chocolatier or restaurant owner, or have some other product that you can tie in with February 14th celebration of love, use that hashtag in your posts where it’s relevant.

There will be people out there following the #valentinesday hashtag and by using it, you get your message in front of them.

But don’t expect using a very generic hashtag like #valentinesday to generate a flurry of interest. Loads of people are using it, meaning your posts will quickly get lost, and if your product is tied to a specific location (such as a restaurant) it will only be of interest to a local audience.

How to find the best hashtags

To really get results from hashtags, you want to find those that work well with your target market. These hashtags are usually specific to a particular area or a particular industry.

An example I often quote is #dorsethour. Every Monday evening, from 7.30pm, businesses across Dorset tweet about what they’re up to. Lots of people tune in by following the hashtag, leading to some great conversations. It’s a great way to make new contacts.

There are loads of other #hour hashtags, themed by county, city and industry. Likewise, there are loads of event hashtags you can use, such as #idealhomeshow or #wintec17 (the ‘official’ hashtag of the Women in Technology Scotland 2017 conference).

To look for a hashtag that’s associated with an event or activity, visit related Twitter profiles and see what hashtags people are using. Even where there’s an ‘official’ hashtag, people may adopt others in addition, or as alternatives.

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to hashtags. That said, don’t overuse them on Twitter - one or two per tweet is usually enough. Instagram posts tend to have more, with a maximum of 30 permitted.

Tools you can use to search for hashtags include: Hashtagify, Ritetag and Tagboard.

How to carry out an SEO audit on your website

When did you last carry out an SEO audit on your website? I’m guessing the answer is somewhere between ‘not for a long time’ and ‘never’. If you hope to get business from people who find your products when they search on Google, you really should pay attention to SEO.

(Other search engines, such as Bing, are available, but I’ll be referring to Google throughout this article. It’s easier than writing ‘search engine’).

In my experience, most small companies don’t spend a lot of time thinking about SEO.  They tend to trust their website designer who, in many cases, promises to make the site ‘SEO friendly’ when they set it up.

SEO = search engine optimisation. It’s what you can do to improve your website ranking on search engines.

SEO is not a ‘thing’

Unfortunately, SEO isn’t a ‘thing’ you set up and forget about. It’s an ongoing process.

The good news, for smaller businesses, is that most of your competitors pay as little attention to SEO as you do. So, if you put in a little effort, you should see results by improving your position on search engines.

This is why I recommend that you take some time to carry out an SEO audit and then fix some of the issues you uncover.

To help you get started, I’ve put together a simple, non-technical, SEO audit checklist. It only covers the basics, but it’s enough to get you going.

Google logo with magnifying glass
Google logo with magnifying glass

The simple SEO audit checklist

1. Keywords

You’ve heard about keywords. These are words people type into Google and that, you hope, will bring them to your website.

The problem with keywords is that everyone’s chasing them. If you run a holiday cottage in Dorset, you want to appear high up in Google when someone types ‘holiday cottage in Dorset’.

Problem is, all the other holiday cottage providers want the same thing.

So how do you get ahead of the competition by using keywords?

The short answer is to make sure the keywords that you want to bring people to your site are actually being used on your site. If your target keyword is ‘holiday cottage in Dorset’, does that keyword (which is actually several words) appear anywhere on your site?

You’ll be surprised how many websites don’t use obvious keywords in their text. It certainly surprises me!

When it comes to keywords, SEO is far from a precise science. Some SEO experts suggest that you shouldn’t worry too much about keywords, because Google is continually getting better at understanding what your website is all about, making precise keywords less relevant.

In my view, it’s worth making sure that your target keywords are on your website, ideally in titles and opening paragraphs. I’ve recently (late 2016) worked with a multinational client on the launch of their website, and their web team are very focused on keywords.

If they think keywords are still important, you should too.

Google search box
Google search box

2. Relevant content

Google’s advice to people who want their website to rank well is to focus on fresh, relevant content.

What is relevant content? If you’re a plumber, then relevant content is a page telling people what services you offer and how to get in touch with you. But that makes for a pretty thin website.

How do you add more relevant content to a plumber’s website without it becoming boring or repetitive? Here are a few ideas:

  • Case studies, describing the work done on particular jobs (you don’t need to name your client).
  • ‘How to’ articles, explaining how to perform simple tasks.
  • Common problem articles, describing issues people might expect to encounter.
  • Plumbing terminology explained, helping people to understand the language of the plumber.

You can probably think of other relevant content you could add to your website.

If adding lots of material to your website sounds like a chore, you can spread it out over time. How about writing one new article a month? Obviously, the more you can do, the bigger impact it will have, but twelve articles a year will make a bigger impression than zero in a year.

Here’s a word of warning about some website content. It’s tempting to publish news articles about your business, saying ‘we’ve just done this’ and ‘we’ve just done that’. Problem is, from an SEO point of view, these articles are low quality. Who’s actually going to read them?

And they go out of date very quickly - no one’s interested in that new contract you won three years ago. But that great article you wrote about choosing a kitchen tap that will give years of trouble-free service could still be very relevant for a long time to come.

3. Content length

SEO experts think that Google has developed a preference for websites with longer articles. It used to be that 300 words was considered sufficient, but today, 1,000 words could be more effective.

Why the preference for long articles when we’re all in a hurry and want quick answers? No one reads long articles, do they?

You’re reading this one.

Long articles go into depth on a subject. Length is no guarantee of quality, but short articles are almost always going to be light on detail.

When you’re carrying out your SEO audit, consider how many words are on each of your web pages. If it’s under 300, you should seriously think about adding more. Don’t be afraid to go much longer if needed. But always keep it relevant - don’t waffle just to up the word count.

4. Mobile friendly

This is probably a biggie. Google doesn’t tell us the impact of different factors on website ranking, but a while back, they made a point of telling us that mobile friendly websites will rank higher. Which means that mobile unfriendly websites will rank lower.

When did you last take a look at how your website appears on a mobile phone or tablet? Bear in mind that around half the people visiting your website will be using a mobile.

Google provides a handy tool for determining whether your website is considered mobile friendly. Click here to get to the Google mobile friendly test.

Unfortunately, just because Google thinks your website is mobile friendly doesn’t mean that it is. I’ve seen a site that Google gives the thumbs up to, because from a technology point of view, the site is good for mobiles, but from the user’s point of view it is far from friendly.

That’s because it’s people, not computers, that use websites. Even if your site ticks the technology boxes, it may be a pain for a person to find their way around. So, your site may rank better on Google because it’s mobile friendly, but if users can’t find their way around, they’ll quickly lose interest.

Which brings us to the next SEO factor you need to consider.

hands and a smartphone
hands and a smartphone

5. User experience

Some websites are a pain to use. Others are designed to be clear and simple. Websites that are easy to use will rank higher on search engines.

Google has ways of measuring user experience (often abbreviated to UX). If people don’t find your website gives them what they want, Google will know. And this will hurt your SEO.

The problem is, you’re not the right person to tell if your site gives a good experience. Because you built it (directly, or working with a designer or developer), you know it very well. To you, it’s easy to navigate around and find the information you want.

It’s tricky for you to know whether the site is doing its job well. One way to find out is to have someone else, who’s unfamiliar with it, give it a test. Ideally, find someone who matches your target market.

I recently looked at a website for a business that targeted ‘affluent greys’. That is, older people who are relatively well off. There are quite a lot of these in Dorset.

The function of the site was to get people to pick up the phone and make a call. That’s a good objective, because ‘affluent greys’ like using the phone.

However, finding the phone number from the site wasn’t that easy. It wasn’t hidden, but it wasn’t immediately visible the moment they arrived at the site. This meant that the user experience wasn’t as good as it could be.

6. Links to your website

When considering where to rank your website when someone does a search, Google takes into account over 200 different factors. One of these is how many websites link to your website. That’s because ‘authority’ sites (that is, sites that people trust) have lots of links into them.

So, the more sites that link to yours, the more authority your site has. Not all links are created equal - a link from a well-respected site is worth much more than a link from a site your mate set up last week.

If you want to see a list of the sites that link to yours, click here to access the Google Search Console (formerly Webmaster tools). This gives you information about how people are accessing your site, including a list of sites linking to yours.

Some SEO experts put a very high value on getting links. The challenge is getting links from high authority sites, because that’s not easy. Getting links from anywhere can be tricky.

Don’t be tempted to buy links. Google is on the lookout for this and will penalise your site if you do it. Similarly, with link exchange schemes.

The best way to get links that Google likes is to do it the hard way, by publishing high quality material that people find useful, and then encouraging other websites to link to yours.

chain links
chain links

Other SEO audit actions for your website

As I indicated at the start of this article, SEO is an ongoing, indeed, never ending, process. You can review the points above over and over, every few months.

Other ways to boost the SEO of your website include:

  • Removal of duplicate content. Avoid using the same text over and over on different pages.
  • Include some outbound links to other pages.
  • Break up blocks of text to make it easier to read, by using plenty of subheadings and bulleted lists (like this one).
  • Use social media to promote your content and generate more traffic to your site.

Once you’ve made changes to your website, don’t expect its search engine ranking to change overnight. It takes Google a few days to process changes, and it can take even longer for these to start to feed through to how your page ranks.

What SEO tips have worked best for your website?

Getting results from SEO takes time. Be patient!


Author Bio

Andrew Knowles has over 25 years of business experience, from corporate, small business and charitable backgrounds. When he's not training local Dorset businesses how to use social media and technology more efficiently, he can be found strolling the Weymouth sea front and chatting to Leo the cat.

Guides, SEOAndrew Knowles
Dorset foodie uses social media to spice up her business

IIlana Smith of Hari Hari is an inspiration to anyone who wants to set up a small business based around food. She’s combined her passion for cooking with her Sri Lankan roots to create a brand that’s getting noticed, and, of course, she’s using social media to get the word out. I recently spoke with Illana to learn more about the origins of Hari Hari and the part that Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have played in her story so far.

Dorset foodie
Dorset foodie

The seeds of a spice shop

Illana’s professional background is HR and training in bigger companies. Like so many of us, she wanted to work for herself, which meant looking at the resources and opportunities available.

Being half-Sri Lankan, and having lived there for many years, she had a deep appreciation for Sri Lankan curries, which she loves to cook. The difference in taste means she prefers to use spices shipped directly from Sri Lanka, rather than those bought in the UK.

Turning these spices into meal-ready packages seemed to be a great way for Illana to combine her curry passion with her business ambitions.

She spent a year planning the business. Advice she received early on was to set a high standard of presentation from the start, making it important that her branding and packaging was right from day one.

Dorset foodie cooking
Dorset foodie cooking

Growing a business through networking

Hari Hari began in 2014 with a website and a Facebook Page. Illana then discovered and joined The Anonymous Travelling Market, which promotes local food and craft in the South West. That led her to Dorset Food & Drink, where she made the most of every networking opportunity on offer, picking up loads of advice from fellow producers at every event.

One of the most useful revelations was the power of Twitter to connect small businesses. Through Twitter, Illana has made lots of useful new contacts with other small producers and local retailers.

Because retailers have seen Hari Hari being talked about on Twitter, they’re more open to putting the spice packages on their shelves. Whereas some shops were initially wary, some are now approaching Illana in order to stock her products.

Another revelation to Illana was supper clubs, where foodies gather around a table to share a meal and get to know one another better. She has gone on to develop a supper club in conjunction with Comins Tea House in Sturminster Newton.

Hari Hari food
Hari Hari food

How people and social media have helped Hari Hari

Illana effectively launched her business at the school gate, supported by a website and Facebook Page. Today that Page has well over 400 likes. She also has over 800 followers on Twitter and over 1,100 followers on Instagram.

As a sole trader, Illana struggles to give more time to social media. She’s also very happy with the follower numbers because, while they’re not high, they deliver results.

Illana’s approach to Facebook and Instagram is to share the journey that she’s on, while Twitter is more about connecting with other businesses. She usually posts at least one Instagram picture per day, and posts on Facebook two or three times a week. Because they’re important channels, she keeps up with them during the day.

If you’re thinking of setting up a business, or already run one, here are some tips from Illana:

  • Give social media time - it takes one or two years to really start getting results.
  • Be patient about sales - it took around a year for her website sales to go from zero to frequent.
  • Have a way to measure success - for Illana this is repeat customers. A very high percentage of those who buy from her come back for more.

Dorset is well known for its specialist, artisan food producers. Hari Hari is a part of that vibrant community, both online and offline. It’s a great example of how someone is making a success of their business ambitions by connecting with their passion and harnessing the power of social media.

Hari Hari is a 2016 Taste of the West gold award winner.

Click here to learn more about Hari Hari spices.

Hari Hari packs
Hari Hari packs